I can’t be alone in carrying a torch long into adulthood for the books I read at school. They’re bound up with memories of great teachers, simpler times and long summer afternoons reading in warm classrooms, being introduced to the world of pleasure afforded by books.
I was lucky enough to go on to be an English teacher, reading some of the same books with my own classes, and finding others that would work a similar magic. I know as well as anyone that not every lesson is a chorus of literary epiphanies; I have written about the ups and downs, the joy and the madness of my time in the classroom in my memoir,
. But when the fates align, there is nothing as satisfying as reading a great book with a class of young people. Let That Be a Lesson
So this is a selection of books that are or have been on the school curriculum. Maybe you’ll find one that’s new to you, and you will come under its spell for the first time. Or if you choose to revisit a book from your past, I hope it rekindles old fires and you once again feel like you’re sixteen and anything is possible.
by Harper Lee (1960) To Kill a Mockingbird
It’s Harper Lee’s beautiful, gentle presentation of childhood which has stayed with me from this wonderful book. She captures perfectly the time when lazy days stretched out before you, when you made your own fun and when your imagination was uncurtailed. Through the eyes of six-year-old Scout we hear about the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of rape in the Deep South of 1930s America. Scout’s innocence contrasts with the prejudice and injustice going on around her, and the result is a moving portrayal of how even the great scourges of society are surprisingly simple when you think about them like a child.
by Bernardine Evaristo (2019) Girl, Woman, Other
The Booker Prize-winner is new to A-Level English, following a report called
Lit in Colour, co-commissioned by Penguin and The Runnymede Trust, which highlighted the need for greater diversity in the curriculum. It’s more of a web than a linear story, a collection of portraits of (mostly) black British women. A banker, a student, a farmer, a teacher… as they tell us their stories, Evaristo deftly moves between time periods to create a picture of the black British experience across generations, and in so doing gives a voice to one of the demographics least likely to be represented in fiction.
by Margaret Atwood (1985) The Handmaid’s Tale
Atwood’s dystopian vision of the near future can be relied on to get students thinking. It’s set in Gilead where women are forbidden from reading, from getting jobs, even from forming friendships. Offred is one of the handmaids whose only purpose under the new regime is to breed. It’s a cautionary tale made all the more chilling by Atwood’s comment that everything portrayed in the novel has happened somewhere in the world at some time.
by J. D. Salinger (1951) The Catcher in the Rye
Classes I taught adored this book, and it’s perhaps not a massive surprise; it’s the quintessential coming-of-age story. Holden Caulfield rails against a society he sees as full of phonies and hypocrites, but in doing so he inadvertently reveals his own insecurities, struggles and hang-ups. As Caulfield wanders around New York trying to seem grown up, Salinger encourages us to reflect on authenticity, brokenness and what it means to be fulfilled, as a society and as individuals.
by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989) The Remains of the Day
I’m ashamed to say that I only came to read Ishiguro when I was teaching this book for the first time, but I quickly tore through the rest of his writing. In
we meet Stevens, a butler who has devoted his life to his work at Darlington Hall. So burdened is he with duty and service that he lets the love of his life slip through his fingers, although he doesn’t tell us this; the reader picks up on the very deep pain that lies beneath his buttoned-up narration. Subtle, gentle, beautiful and moving. The Remains of the Day
by John Steinbeck (1937) Of Mice and Men
This book has been a staple of English Department cupboards across the land for years. It’s short, but no less complex or profound or wonderful for that. We follow George and Lennie, itinerant workers in 1930s California, as they strive for a better life by seeking work on a ranch in the Salinas Valley. It’s a book about loyalty and friendship, hope and resilience, and when you read the ending, no matter how rowdy the class, you could hear a pin drop every time.
by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) The Great Gatsby
I studied this book for my own A-Level English and still dip into it every now and again to get dizzily lost in its melodic, poetic portrayal of the Jazz Age. Nick Carraway is the everyman narrator who introduces us to Jay Gatsby and the lavish parties he throws at his grand house near New York. But the razzmatazz is superficial, and Fitzgerald shows us the pain and disappointment that lie beneath the surface in this book, which has come to define the age.
by Arthur Miller (1946) All My Sons
In truth, I could easily have chosen other works by Miller; I have taught and loved
, Death of a Salesman and A View from the Bridge . But this was the first one I studied when I was fifteen, and Miller’s portrayal of Joe Keller slowly realising that he is part of a society, that he has responsibilities beyond his immediate family, has stayed with me through the years. In an age where we sometimes seem more insular and self-obsessed than ever, this is a message for our time. The Crucible